TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu's settlement expansion plan may have alienated Israeli allies abroad, but it is also likely to bolster the Israeli prime minister's support among voters ahead of January's election.
Last weekend, Mr Netanyahu announced that Israel will build or advance construction plans for some 11,700 settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including in at least eight settlements and the controversial E1 corridor near Jerusalem. The plan, the premier had said, was a punitive measure against the Palestinians after they gained statehood recognition at the United Nations on November 29 despite fierce Israeli opposition.
However, analysts said yesterday Mr Netanyahu was aiming for more than just to punish the Palestinians for carrying out what he has blasted as a unilateral move that would hurt the chances for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The premier, despite being far ahead of rivals in the polls, was exposing what one analyst called "political insecurity" by trying to cement support among those Israeli Jews who have considered forgoing voting for his right wing Likud movement and instead choosing more radical, pro-settler parties.
Mr Netanyahu also appeared to be testing western allies to assess how much goodwill Israel could lost among them should it bolster the Jewish settlement enterprise in the occupied West Bank, territory the Palestinians - and many in the international community - want for a Palestinian state.
Yaron Ezrahi an Israeli political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: "Netanyahu was waiting for an opportunity to test the West, and the Palestinians' UN move gave him that. He would like to know the leverage that he has from the international community to promote the settlements."
According to Mr Ezrahi, the premier "is probably preserving for himself the option of retreating when he sees that international allies are starting to be serious" in their condemnation of the settlement plans and possible sanctions against Israel.
The international criticism that Mr Netanyahu has already attracted for his settlement plans appears to be the most intense in years. At least eight countries have summoned Israeli ambassadors in the past week to protest the settlement expansion, including close allies Germany, Italy and Britain.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, perhaps Israel's closest ally in Europe, on Thursday told journalists she and Mr Netanyahu "agreed to disagree" on the issue of settlements following their meeting in Berlin.
Like the settlement plans, Mr Netanyahu's decision last month to launch an eight-day army operation in the Gaza Strip was also at least partly attributed by commentators to his ambition to gain support from the right, which for months has been pushing him to act military against Gaza's Hamas rulers.
Gabriel Weimann, a political scientist at Israel's Haifa University, said: "When you have elections coming up, you want to signal to the right that you don't give in to the Palestinians and that no international pressure can break you."
Some experts said Mr Netanyahu appears uncertain of his political standing among right-wingers despite the Likud's clear lead in every poll in recent months.
Tamir Shaefer, a political-science professor Hebrew University, said: "Netanyahu's DNA is to be politically insecure, even when he has a very secure lead. He tends to behave hysterically sometimes on the political side."
Experts say that an indication that Mr Netanyahu's announcement on the settlements might be aimed for short-term diplomatic and electoral goals rather than for actual deeds was that much of the more sensitive construction that has drawn condemnation appeared to be years away from being carried out.
The most controversial plan of building 3,426 units in an area of barren hills known as E1 - where activists say settlement construction could bisect the West Bank, cut off Palestinians from Jerusalem and dim their hopes for a contiguous state - is at least two years away, according to the anti-settlement group Peace Now.
The group said last week that E1 still needs to undergo a process that includes publication of the plan for objections, implementing possible changes and carrying out a tender process in which contractors bid for building rights, prepare the construction and receive proper permits.